Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Murder of Dr. George Tiller (2)

By good luck I was in my car shortly after noon yesterday and heard the NPR program Here and Now. Host Robin Young interviewed Miriam Kleiman, who nine years ago had a late term abortion at Dr. Tiller's clinic. The interview is very worth listening to, and could be used as a trigger for discussion in a mature high school class, a college or health professional class, or a discussion group.

The baby Ms. Kleiman was carrying was found to have a rare brain anomaly that would lead to death. She and her husband decided to seek abortion. When she spoke with the head of her obstetrical practice he looked her in the eye and said "we call that murder!" This was a serious lapse of medical ethics. It would have been acceptable for the physician to have spoken about his personal values, but not to use "we" for a personal perspective or to use the word "murder" for a legal procedure.

By contrast, Dr. Tiller and his clinic were professional, kind and considerate. I've read more about him. He appears to have been a true moral hero. Here's part of what I learned from an article in USA Today:
As a late-term abortion doctor, George Tiller knew he had chosen a dangerous career, one that made him a lightning rod. His Kansas clinic was a fortress, his days marred by threats, but he refused to give up what he saw as his life's mission.

"He never wavered," says Susie Gilligan, who knew Tiller as part of her work in the Feminist Majority Foundation. "He never backed away. He had incredible strength. When you spoke to him, he was a soft-spoken man, a very gentle man. He said, 'This is what I have to do. Women need me. I know they need me.'"

When thousands of protesters gathered at the Women's Health Care Services clinic in 1991 for the 45-day "Summer of Mercy" demonstration staged by Operation Rescue, he was again unbowed.

"I am a willing participant in this conflict," he said at the time. "I choose to be here because I feel that it is the moral, it is the ethical thing to do."

He told The Wichita Eagle newspaper in 1991 that prayer and meditation helped him through hard times. "If I'm OK on the inside," he said, "what people say on the outside does not make much difference."
Reading about Dr. Tiller's deeply grounded moral strength reminded me of an experience I had during my first year at college. A roommate from Dr. Tiller's part of the country (Kansas/Oklahoma) and I, wanting to earn some extra money, participated in what I later learned was a classical social psychological experiment - the Asch Conformity Experiment.

The ostensible task was making visual judgments about the length of a line. All of the other "subjects" were confederates in the experiment, and after a few correct judgments made a consistent systematic error. The research question was - what was the impact on the one true subject?

I remember a feeling of dis-ease and gradually beginning to question my judgments. The confederates were making a consistent erroneous choice, and sometimes that choice actually looked correct to me.

But my roommate, who I now associate with Dr. Tiller in his inner confidence, never noticed what the confederates were doing. We had 80 judgments to make. He disagreed 80 times. For me, the contrast between his reaction and mine was a learning opportunity I've never forgotten.

I hope at least some opponents of abortion will be able to recognize and respect Dr. Tiller's moral seriousness.

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